Julian Agyeman: A Visionary for Just Sustainabilities

April 23, 2020, Feature, by Kristine Stratton, NRPA President and CEO

2020 May Feature Julian Agyeman A Visionary for Just Sustainabilities 410

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The university scholar, author and advocate emphasizes the need for justice in sustainable urban planning and design, and discusses parks and recreation’s role in advancing this concept, especially during this time of pandemic

For more than 20 years, Julian Agyeman has been on a journey. One that has taken him around the world and across the United States with one distinct mission in mind: to educate governments and policymakers about the “intentional integration of social justice and environmental sustainability” in urban planning and design. Known as just sustainabilities, this concept has received worldwide attention and has solidified Agyeman’s profile as not only the concept’s originator, but also as a leading authority and source of inspiration in the field.

Born and trained in the U.K., Agyeman has a bachelor’s degree in geography and botany (University of Durham), a master’s in conservation policy (Middlesex University), and a doctorate in urban studies (University of London). He identifies himself as a critical urban planning and environmental social science scholar. Agyeman is professor of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning at Tufts University in Massachusetts, as well as an acclaimed author of 12 books — many of which center on just sustainabilities principles.

I personally had the honor of having Professor Agyeman as my academic advisor while completing a master’s in environmental policy and planning at Tufts. His courses, supporting lectures and guidance not only inspired me, but also influenced the way I saw the world, and more importantly, the way I envisioned it could be.

Recently, I reunited with Professor Agyeman for an interview for Parks & Recreation magazine, in which he discusses the concept behind just sustainabilities, the importance of maintaining a “co-production” mindset with communities, and how parks and recreation can help promote these practices in our respective parks and communities.

Kristine Stratton: Could you start by explaining the concept of just sustainabilities?

Julian Agyeman: Sure. The concept of just sustainabilities came out of a realization that I had in the late ’90s post Rio Earth Summit. There was what I called an “equity deficit” in most sustainability discourse, practice and academic research. So, a group of us got together and really thought about…how the environmental justice movement was on the rise in the ’90s, and how do we get the “justice” of environmental justice and insert it into this new policy conversation, called sustainability or sustainable development? And we thought, “Hey, what about the concept of just sustainabilities?” So, we hammered out this idea and really gave it a very broad definition: improving people’s quality of life now and into the future in a just and equitable manner, while living within the limits of ecosystems.

The just sustainabilities idea is not simply social justice, it recognizes the need to practice more socially just ways of living, within the limits of supporting ecosystems. We recognize that there is no planet B. So, just sustainabilities was about acknowledging that we could probably legislate for a green planet, but if that planet [weren’t] also socially just, would it really be sustainable in the longer term? So, that was the origin. My work is on how do we bring just sustainabilities into public policy and planning?

Stratton: When you take that global concept and think about the context of civic institutions, our state and local governments and agencies, how do you see this concept of just sustainabilities applying to parks and recreation?

Agyeman: Well, I’m going to go back to another concept that I’ve been working on…[which is] this idea of belonging and becoming. When you think about cities, in many ways, what [they] are better at is saying, “We want to become a smart city. We want to become more resilient. We want to become sustainable. We want to become healthy.” And, that’s good. We need optimism, vision and the notion that we can move to a better place. But at the same time, these cities are being gentrified — inequality is increasing. We are denying belonging to more and more people.

So, what do I see? I see the city and its institutions and parks as almost being a gatekeeper. And, I want those cities to dream big of what they can become, but at the moment, the deficit is in belonging. We are denying increasing numbers of people the right to belong. And, ultimately, our cities will only become as good as we allow people to belong. If we just allow the urban elites to define what cities can become, we’re not going to be in a good place. We are going to define elite spaces, which will not be inclusive or welcoming to people who don’t feel that they’re part of that elite.

Stratton: Let’s dig into that idea of inclusion. Of course, parks and recreation controls many of the public gathering spaces: parks, recreation centers, senior centers, etc. When you think about that vision of having inclusive spaces where every member of the community feels like they belong and can access those resources, what advice would you give park and rec professionals in moving from where we are today to a future state where people do feel like they belong?

Agyeman: I think there are three key aspects of park and rec operations that you could think about. And, this can apply also to other city building or city-maintaining professionals — design, management and programming. Who designs our spaces? Who manages these spaces? And, who programs these spaces?

If your organization doesn’t look like the community it serves, are you legitimate? Going forward, are you going to be trusted? Are you effective? Can you get funding? I want to give a shout out to the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative in Boston, which in the early 1980s, before they set up the organization, they did a demographic survey of the neighborhood and constituted their board of directors to look like the community. Forty years on, the DSNI is going strong. The funders love them, they’ve developed hundreds of affordable homes, they’ve developed the Dudley Commons, and they’re part of the Dudley Food Hub. And, they participated in the Article 89 rezoning in Boston, which allowed two of their community land, trust lands, to become farms.

The success of this organization is palpable, and I attribute a lot of it to the fact that they look like the communities, so there is trust. I mean…do your park professionals feel that they represent or look like communities in which they’re serving? In this world where belonging is becoming increasingly denied in urban spaces, how do we get to the point where our professionals do reflect the communities in which they serve? [This applies to] design professionals who design these public spaces and parks, [along with] the managers of these spaces and the programmers of these spaces.

I want to propose something that I’m increasingly interested in, [which] is the idea of co-production. Co-production breaks down the barrier between provider and user, or manager and user. One very simple example is from my own personal experience. When I first came to Cambridge about 20 years ago, the city was doing some street tree planting. And, they leafleted the neighborhood. They honestly said, “Look, we can’t be watering these every week in the summer. Would you pledge to throw a bucket of water over it once a week?” And I said, “Absolutely!” And now, I can go to that tree, look at it and say, “I co-produced you! You are a co-production between me and Cambridge City Council.” That’s the simplest level. And, we’ve done it for a long time.

Here’s a charge I could put out to you [park professionals]. In what ways could the design, management and programming functions of parks be seen as a co-production effort with local communities? Now, I want to lay out straight from the beginning that I don’t see this as cheap labor. Some people say: “Oh my God, Julian, come on! You know this is cheap labor. This is parks. We know where the budgets get slashed first. It’s always parks.”

I was on the Stewardship Council of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and we looked at state parks and everything. We were always getting our budget slashed, but this isn’t that. This is a new way of thinking. This is a very distributed form of governance, and this is a way to make people feel they belong. This gets to the belonging piece, and if we look after the belonging piece, the becoming piece will take care of itself.

Stratton: How do you see planning and policy influencing positive outcomes that help reinforce this idea of just sustainabilities?

Agyeman: One thing that I’m increasingly interested in is the role of leadership. When I look around the world — where very positive, pro equity, pro justice things have happened in cities — there’s always a strong leader. Go back to Curitiba (Brazil) and Jaime Lerner who basically went out and looked at his city and said, “How do we get people to move around so that they can gain access? How can we design a more equitable system?” He didn’t design a more green system; that wasn’t his primary goal. It was a more equitable system. The result, though, was an increasingly green transport system, which people still go to Curitiba to see.

Belo Horizonte, Brazil, is a city that Frances Moore Lappé calls “the city that abolished hunger,” because a mayor in the early ’90s, who himself had come from a background of food insecurity, designed a civic directorate of the city that looked at food security in terms of the city fixing certain prices of certain foods for people on benefits.

The private-sector retailers could sell at whatever price they want to [for] other people. But for people on benefits, they [must] sell it at certain prices. They also started giving unemployed people plots of city land and resources to help train people to do things. The result was a city of 3 to 4 million [people] in Brazil, a capitalist nation, that imposed a food security policy, which even today — given successive administrations — [is] still operating and is still the envy of the world, and fulfills many of the goals of what’s called the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact.

These examples were where social justice and equity were at the core. They were not afterthoughts. It wasn’t, “let’s get the economics right, let’s get the environmental bits right, and oh, it would be great if, on a second level, we could improve social equity and justice.”

Going back to the food policy, [Brazil] built this food security platform in the early ’90s on the basis of social justice, the Brazilian right to food, which is enshrined in the constitution, and food with dignity. And, I think this is really important, especially in these COVID-19 days, we need to reintroduce words into public policy that are very human — like dignity, empathy, altruism. These are words that maybe we [once] thought about as public policymakers, but I want them to come back into our lexicon. We need to make public policy that is dignified, altruistic, that is just, and that bears the signs of empathy.

Stratton: It’s interesting to think about your Curitiba example, that idea of having a vision of “let’s have people move around and get access to where they need to be.” It wasn’t, “oh, let’s fix this narrow little problem.”

Agyeman: Nobody remembers the brilliant technical urban planner, but we all remember the visionaries like Ebenezer Howard, Jane Jacobs, Jaime Lerner. We all remember them because they translated a vision into practice.

If you look at places like Copenhagen, they took a dream from the early ’60s and incrementally every year, they increased the amount of pedestrian space, increased the number of parks, increased the number of people cycling and walking to work. And, they have a very pleasant city today [as a result of] urban planning. In downtown Copenhagen, there’s a zoning regulation that building frontages must be 75 percent glass, because they want interaction in the social realm. There are all of these very clever ideas. They don’t want enclosures; they want the commons. Cities are shared spaces, and we need to think of the urban commons as the network of spaces, places, streets — of places where people are and can be human beings.

And, let’s not forget the fabulous example of Superkilen Park in the Norrebro district [of Copenhagen]. Superkilen is a linear park [that has] a very heavily immigrant neighborhood. The city and the design firm looked at it and asked: “How do we try and make this a culturally inclusive space?” One of the ideas was to ask the community about what artifacts they would like to see. So, you walk through this space and you see everything from bollards, which were painted with the flag of Ghana, West Africa, benches from Iran and Mexico, and I saw one of these poles with a bull on the top from Spain. The idea of asking people what kind of spaces they want — in a sense, Superkilen is a co-production between the city, the design firm and the community.

In parks and public spaces, how do we get people to talk across difference? How do we have neighbors becoming real neighbors rather than strangers? I think parks and public spaces have a real role in that, in terms of that possibility of contact. And, ‘contact theory’ says that the more contact you have with people who are different to you, the more likely you are to become more tolerant and even more accepting of policies that promote diversity. In these COVID-19 times, distancing, yes, but let’s not lose contact.

Stratton: There are examples of where P&R has helped to address food injustice and food deserts through providing nutritious meals for kids, farmers markets and community gardens. What should P&R professionals be thinking about as they work toward doing more in this space?

Agyeman: Taking a step back, the goal on the personnel side has to be diversification of the profession. That’s the goal. In the meantime, how culturally competent do our design, management and programming staff feel? There are some statistics that say 80 percent of the population would love to be more culturally competent, but they don’t know how to go about it. And one of the things about us humans is we are afraid of offending people. So, rather than attempt to make contact across difference, we shy back. That might be interpreted as, “they don’t care.” Cultural competency is really important.

Deep ethnographies of neighborhoods, understanding neighborhoods, not just the [demographic] stats; I want to know about the lives of people, the daily practices.
That’s what deep ethnography would bring us. Imagine a parks department that said, “We are going to work with the community…with school groups, with elder groups on community histories. We are going to build up a deep knowledge of this community.” That would go a long way to building trust. It would also fulfill some of the conditions of restorative justice. Cultural competency, the idea of co-producing, deep ethnographies — these are the ways that we learn about how practices might go forward.

Stratton: I love the fact that you explore an idea and then you explore the next idea. What do you think has yet to be explored or what do you see digging into next?

Agyeman: Is just sustainabilities a destination or a journey? I actually think it’s a journey. There may be a destination somewhere along the line, but it’s a journey. And we’re on that journey — whether we like it or not. We can choose to go backwards and retrace our steps, and we might have to do that for a short while and then go forward again. For me, just sustainabilities for 20 years has been this platform through which I’ve explored issues of food, sharing cities, urban design, and how urban design can complete streets, how it can lead to gentrification and deepen inequality.

The news is quite good in many ways that a lot of cities are engaging with some of the principles of just sustainabilities, but the downside is: nobody, virtually, is looking at them all simultaneously. So, some are doing the more environmental bits, some are doing the justice bits. People are engaged with various aspects, but the challenge is: how do we get cities to deal simultaneously with all of these aspects? In many ways, just sustainabilities is more than the sum of its parts. It’s an intersectional set of ideas that, if practiced together, would make really deep change.

For more information on “just sustainabilities” and Professor Agyeman’s other research and writings, visit his website